On February 18, 1885, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain was published in the United States after initially being published in the United Kingdom and Canada on December 10, 1884. Commonly named among the Great American Novels, the work is among the first in major American literature to be written throughout in vernacular English, characterized by local color regionalism. It is told in the first person by Huckleberry “Huck” Finn, the narrator of two other Twain novels (Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective) and a friend of Tom Sawyer. It is a direct sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
The book is noted for its colorful description of people and places along the Mississippi River. Set in a Southern antebellum society that had ceased to exist about 20 years before the work was published, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an often scathing satire on entrenched attitudes, particularly racism.
Perennially popular with readers, the novel has also been the continued object of study by literary critics since its publication. The book was widely criticized upon release because of its extensive use of coarse language. Throughout the 20th century, and despite arguments that the protagonist and the tenor of the book are anti-racist, criticism of the book continued due to both its perceived use of racial stereotypes and its frequent use of the racial slur “nigger”.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn explores themes of race and identity. A complexity exists concerning Jim’s character. While some scholars point out that Jim is good-hearted, moral, and he is not unintelligent (in contrast to several of the more negatively depicted white characters), others have criticized the novel as racist, citing the use of the word “nigger” and emphasizing the stereotypically “comic” treatment of Jim’s lack of education, superstition and ignorance.
Throughout the story, Huck is in moral conflict with the received values of the society in which he lives, and while he is unable to consciously refute those values even in his thoughts, he makes a moral choice based on his own valuation of Jim’s friendship and Jim’s human worth, a decision in direct opposition to the things he has been taught. Mark Twain, in his lecture notes, proposes that “a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience” and goes on to describe the novel as “…a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat”.
To highlight the hypocrisy required to condone slavery within an ostensibly moral system, Twain has Huck’s father enslave his son, isolate him, and beat him. When Huck escapes, he then immediately encounters Jim “illegally” doing the same thing. The treatments both of them receive are radically different, especially with an encounter with Mrs. Judith Loftus who takes pity on who she presumes to be a runaway apprentice, Huck, yet boasts about her husband sending the hounds after a runaway slave, Jim.
Some scholars discuss Huck’s own character, and the novel itself, in the context of its relation to African-American culture as a whole. John Alberti quotes Shelley Fisher Fishkin, who writes in her 1990s book Was Huck Black?: Mark Twain and African-American Voices, “by limiting their field of inquiry to the periphery,” white scholars “have missed the ways in which African-American voices shaped Twain’s creative imagination at its core.” It is suggested that the character of Huckleberry Finn illustrates the correlation, and even interrelatedness, between white and black culture in the United States.
The original illustrations were done by E.W. Kemble, at the time a young artist working for Life magazine. Kemble was hand-picked by Twain, who admired his work. Hearn suggests that Twain and Kemble had a similar skill, writing that:
Whatever he may have lacked in technical grace … Kemble shared with the greatest illustrators the ability to give even the minor individual in a text his own distinct visual personality; just as Twain so deftly defined a full-rounded character in a few phrases, so too did Kemble depict with a few strokes of his pen that same entire personage.
As Kemble could afford only one model, most of his illustrations produced for the book were done by guesswork. When the novel was published, the illustrations were praised even as the novel was harshly criticized. E.W. Kemble produced another set of illustrations for Harper’s and the American Publishing Company in 1898 and 1899 after Twain lost the copyright.
Twain initially conceived of the work as a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that would follow Huckleberry Finn through adulthood. Beginning with a few pages he had removed from the earlier novel, Twain began work on a manuscript he originally titled Huckleberry Finn’s Autobiography. Twain worked on the manuscript off and on for the next several years, ultimately abandoning his original plan of following Huck’s development into adulthood. He appeared to have lost interest in the manuscript while it was in progress, and set it aside for several years. After making a trip down the Hudson River, Twain returned to his work on the novel. Upon completion, the novel’s title closely paralleled its predecessor’s: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer’s Comrade).
Mark Twain composed the story in pen on notepaper between 1876 and 1883. Paul Needham, who supervised the authentication of the manuscript for Sotheby’s books and manuscripts department in New York in 1991, stated, “What you see is [Clemens’] attempt to move away from pure literary writing to dialect writing”. For example, Twain revised the opening line of Huck Finn three times. He initially wrote, “You will not know about me”, which he changed to, “You do not know about me”, before settling on the final version, “You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer‘; but that ain’t no matter.” The revisions also show how Twain reworked his material to strengthen the characters of Huck and Jim, as well as his sensitivity to the then-current debate over literacy and voting.
A later version was the first typewritten manuscript delivered to a printer.
Demand for the book spread outside of the United States. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was eventually published on December 10, 1884, in Canada and the United Kingdom, and on February 18, 1885, in the United States. The illustration on page 283 became a point of issue after an engraver, whose identity was never discovered, made a last-minute addition to the printing plate of Kemble’s picture of old Silas Phelps, which drew attention to Phelps’ groin. Thirty thousand copies of the book had been printed before the obscenity was discovered. A new plate was made to correct the illustration and repair the existing copies.
In 1885, the Buffalo Public Library’s curator, James Fraser Gluck, approached Twain to donate the manuscript to the library. Twain did so. Later it was believed that half of the pages had been misplaced by the printer. In 1991, the missing first half turned up in a steamer trunk owned by descendants of Gluck’s. The library successfully claimed possession and, in 1994, opened the Mark Twain Room to showcase the treasure.
In relation to the literary climate at the time of the book’s publication in 1885, Henry Nash Smith describes the importance of Mark Twain’s already established reputation as a “professional humorist”, having already published over a dozen other works. Smith suggests that while the “dismantling of the decadent Romanticism of the later nineteenth century was a necessary operation,” Adventures of Huckleberry Finn illustrated “previously inaccessible resources of imaginative power, but also made vernacular language, with its new sources of pleasure and new energy, available for American prose and poetry in the twentieth century.”
While it was clear that the publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was controversial from the outset, Norman Mailer, writing in The New York Times in 1984, concluded that Twain’s novel was not initially “too unpleasantly regarded.” In fact, Mailer writes: “the critical climate could hardly anticipate T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway’s encomiums 50 years later,” reviews that would remain longstanding in the American consciousness.
Alberti suggests that the academic establishment responded to the book’s challenges both dismissively and with confusion. During Twain’s time, and today, defenders of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn “lump all nonacademic critics of the book together as extremists and ‘censors’ thus equating the complaints about the book’s ‘coarseness’ from the genteel bourgeois trustees of the Concord Public Library in the 1880s with more recent objections based on race and civil rights.”
Upon issue of the American edition in 1885 several libraries banned it from their shelves. The early criticism focused on what was perceived as the book’s crudeness. One incident was recounted in the newspaper the Boston Transcript:
The Concord (Mass.) Public Library committee has decided to exclude Mark Twain’s latest book from the library. One member of the committee says that, while he does not wish to call it immoral, he thinks it contains but little humor, and that of a very coarse type. He regards it as the veriest trash. The library and the other members of the committee entertain similar views, characterizing it as rough, coarse, and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.
Writer Louisa May Alcott criticized the book’s publication as well, saying that if Twain “[could not] think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses he had best stop writing for them”.
Twain later remarked to his editor, “Apparently, the Concord library has condemned Huck as ‘trash and only suitable for the slums.’ This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!”
In 1905, New York’s Brooklyn Public Library also banned the book due to “bad word choice” and Huck’s having “not only itched but scratched” within the novel, which was considered obscene. When asked by a Brooklyn librarian about the situation, Twain sardonically replied:
I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote ‘Tom Sawyer’ & ‘Huck Finn’ for adults exclusively, & it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experience, & to this day I cherish an unappeased bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again on this side of the grave.
Many subsequent critics, Ernest Hemingway among them, have deprecated the final chapters, claiming the book “devolves into little more than minstrel-show satire and broad comedy” after Jim is detained. Although Hemingway declared, “All modern American literature comes from” Huck Finn, and hailed it as “the best book we’ve had”, he cautioned, “If you must read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys [sic]. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.” Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Powers states in his Twain biography (Mark Twain: A Life) that “Huckleberry Finn endures as a consensus masterpiece despite these final chapters”, in which Tom Sawyer leads Huck through elaborate machinations to rescue Jim.
In his introduction to The Annotated Huckleberry Finn, Michael Patrick Hearn writes that Twain “could be uninhibitedly vulgar”, and quotes critic William Dean Howells, a Twain contemporary, who wrote that the author’s “humor was not for most women”. However, Hearn continues by explaining that “the reticent Howells found nothing in the proofs of Huckleberry Finn so offensive that it needed to be struck out”.
Much of modern scholarship of Huckleberry Finn has focused on its treatment of race. Many Twain scholars have argued that the book, by humanizing Jim and exposing the fallacies of the racist assumptions of slavery, is an attack on racism. Others have argued that the book falls short on this score, especially in its depiction of Jim. According to Professor Stephen Railton of the University of Virginia, Twain was unable to fully rise above the stereotypes of black people that white readers of his era expected and enjoyed, and, therefore, resorted to minstrel show-style comedy to provide humor at Jim’s expense, and ended up confirming rather than challenging late-19th century racist stereotypes.
In one instance, the controversy caused a drastically altered interpretation of the text: in 1955, CBS tried to avoid controversial material in a televised version of the book, by deleting all mention of slavery and omitting the character of Jim entirely.
Because of this controversy over whether Huckleberry Finn is racist or anti-racist, and because the word “nigger” is frequently used in the novel (a commonly used word in Twain’s time which has since become vulgar and taboo), many have questioned the appropriateness of teaching the book in the U.S. public school system — this questioning of the word “nigger” is illustrated by a school administrator of Virginia in 1982 calling the novel the “most grotesque example of racism I’ve ever seen in my life”. According to the American Library Association, Huckleberry Finn was the fifth most frequently challenged book in the United States during the 1990s.
There have been several more recent cases involving protests for the banning of the novel. In 2003, high school student Calista Phair and her grandmother, Beatrice Clark, in Renton, Washington, proposed banning the book from classroom learning in the Renton School District, though not from any public libraries, because of the word “nigger”. Clark filed a request with the school district in response to the required reading of the book, asking for the novel to be removed from the English curriculum. The two curriculum committees that considered her request eventually decided to keep the novel on the 11th grade curriculum, though they suspended it until a panel had time to review the novel and set a specific teaching procedure for the novel’s controversial topics.
In 2009, a Washington state high school teacher called for the removal of the novel from a school curriculum. The teacher, John Foley, called for replacing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with a more modern novel. In an opinion column that Foley wrote in the Seattle Post Intelligencer, he states that all “novels that use the ‘N-word’ repeatedly need to go.” He states that teaching the novel is not only unnecessary, but difficult due to the offensive language within the novel with many students becoming uncomfortable at “just hear[ing] the N-word.” He views this change as “common sense,” with Obama’s election into office as a sign that Americans “are ready for a change,” and that by removing these books from the reading lists, they would be following this change.
In 2016, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was removed from a public school district in Virginia, along with the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, due to their use of racial slurs.
Publishers have made their own attempts at easing the controversy by way of releasing editions of the book with the word “nigger” replaced by less controversial words. A 2011 edition of the book, published by NewSouth Books, employed the word “slave” (although being incorrectly addressed to a freed man), and did not use the term “Injun.” Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben said he hoped the edition would be more friendly for use in classrooms, rather than have the work banned outright from classroom reading lists due to its language.
According to publisher Suzanne La Rosa “At NewSouth, we saw the value in an edition that would help the works find new readers. If the publication sparks good debate about how language impacts learning or about the nature of censorship or the way in which racial slurs exercise their baneful influence, then our mission in publishing this new edition of Twain’s works will be more emphatically fulfilled.” Another scholar, Thomas Wortham, criticized the changes, saying the new edition “doesn’t challenge children to ask, ‘Why would a child like Huck use such reprehensible language?'”
Two similarly expurged editions of the book were published in 2011. The Hipster Huckleberry Finn employed the word “hipster”. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Robotic Edition employed the word “robot”, and included modified illustrations in which Jim was replaced with a robot character.
On June 13, 2001, Germany released a set of five semi-postal stamps in its Youth series featuring characters from children’s books (Scott #B885-B889). One of the other stamps in the set, denominated 100 pfennig + 50 pfennig and portraying the character of Pinocchio (Scott #B885) was highlighted on A Stamp A Day last month. The stamp which pictures Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn is denominated 300 pfennig + 100 pfennig and has the Scott catalogue number of Germany #B889). The stamps were printed by offset lithography and issued in miniature sheets of 10 stamps each, perforated 13¾. There were 206,400 sheets of the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn stamp printed, for a total press run of 2,064,000 stamps. The surtax was for the German Youth Stamp Foundation.